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A caution against false information in ‘Recalculating the risks’

| Thursday, August 27, 2020

Professor Alford et al. may be right that our community is better off by keeping the campus open. What I object to is how they reach this conclusion: specifically, their appeal to a Cornell research and a CDC survey as evidence that opening the campus is good.

Both inferences are unsound, with the first case involving rather damaging false parallels. First, regarding the Cornell research, according to the letter: “Furthermore, according to a Cornell study, students are safer on campus.”

As a summary of the study, that’s just false. Cornell’s study does not say that students are safer on campus; it states more people at Cornell could be infected with COVID-19 if the semester at Cornell is conducted entirely online. To highlight my issue — Cornell’s study (as it says in the title!) is a model of their own population, taking into account their own geography, student body size, demographic and housing policies. None of it is broadly applicable to campus simpliciter, let alone to ND. The study even warns that “modifying modeling parameters by only a modest amount from nominal values can result in substantially different numbers of infections and hospitalizations.”

Here is an example of a substantial difference: The study’s nominal parameters project that 9,000 students would return to live off-campus in Ithaca even if the semester is entirely online. Notre Dame, in comparison, has about 3.000 off-campus students. This number is deduced from statistics on U.S. News and may be inaccurate — corrections are welcomed. The fact stands that our entire student body is around 12,000 people, a lot smaller than Cornell.

Second, regarding the CDC survey, according to the letter: ”Closing campus due to a spike in positive cases will not protect our students, faculty and staff from more positive cases, much less hospitalizations and mortality. Sending students home will sentence them to months more of isolation — with psychological and social effects — or simply allow them to go out and about with local friends without the benefit of testing and supervision. Little surprise that one in four people aged 18-24 seriously contemplated suicide this summer, according to the CDC.”

The inference is not explicitly made, but the implication is clear: When students are at home, they are either more isolated or experiencing social life without testing support. Both are causes of a mental health crisis among young people.

First, the lack of testing support is fixable — couldn’t the University mail students testing kits at regular time intervals, as it has done at the beginning of the semester? If being at home without testing support is anxiety-inducing, isn’t being stuck on campus with a daily climbing number of cases also stressful?

Furthermore, there is a problem with the statistic: It has no further breakdown for college students. So we don’t know if the mental health pandemic is happening for college students, and if the statistic is representative of our community, which has a uniquely high number of people with faith.

For reference, according to the same CDC survey, among people who have “some college” and “bachelor’s degree,” respectively 8.6% and 10.7%, have reported suicidal thoughts. The group hit the hardest is people “with less than high school diploma” (at an astounding 30%). I do not mean to suggest that these stats are more useful to us than that by age bracket. They are just equally unspecific for our purpose!

Moreover, the Inside Higher Ed article cited by the letter is actually an advocacy piece for continuing funding mental health programs and varying telehealth options amidst college budget cuts. If anything, the undertone of that article is the following: Given remote teaching is a reality, how do we remotely support students under unprecedented stress? It is odd that this article is elected as support evidence for reopening campuses.

To summarize, I understand and sympathize with some of the motivations expressed in the letter. But the inappropriate summary and citation of research can result in the spread of false information, a consequence that we as a community and research institution should take great care to avoid.

Stella Jiayue Zhu

Philosophy PhD candidate

Aug. 25

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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